Thursday, November 20, 2014

Unfortunately, the migration door swings both ways

I’VE RECENTLY been reading a book by the English journalist A A Gill. The Golden Door is a book about America – a country that fascinates Gill, and in which he finds much to like.
Gill’s observations about immigration particularly resonated with me. Writing about the great wave of humanity that left Europe for America in the 19th century, he cites some striking statistics.

Between 1800 and 1914, 30 million Europeans emigrated to the New World. If that doesn’t sound a big number, consider it in this context: Ireland lost one in four of its population, Sweden one in five. Five million Poles, four million Italians and three million Germans crossed the Atlantic.
As Gill points out, “all entrances on one stage are exits elsewhere”. While we tend to think of migration to America in terms of what that country gained, Gill reminds us that it represented an enormous human loss for Europe. Every departure was “a farewell, a sadness, a defeat”. The Irish would hold wakes so that they could mourn those leaving.

He writes movingly of the “gut-wrenching finality of separation”. Those departing would hug their mothers, drink a toast with friends, take a last look at the old house, pat the family dog, and leave. Very few would ever return.
Gill reminds us too that the people who left were usually the ones who could be spared least. “Like a biblical curse, the biblical land called the young and the strong from Europe: the adventurous, the clever and the skilled.”

There are clear parallels here with the New Zealand experience, because ours is an immigrant society too. We can’t be sure what motivated the Polynesian voyagers who first settled New Zealand; some suggest overcrowding on their home islands, depletion of food resources or warfare.
Others theorise that they may simply have been driven by an adventurous urge to discover and colonise new lands. But whatever the explanation, they were obviously looking for something better – and perhaps they too were the young and the strong, the risk-takers.

My own forebears were certainly not prepared to accept the status quo in the countries of their birth. On my mother’s side they were Irish Catholics, economically disadvantaged and politically powerless. On my father’s side, they were getting out of a country (Denmark) that had recently been invaded by the Prussian army.
Life in Europe held even less promise for my wife’s family. Her parents were forcibly transported from occupied Poland to Germany during the Second World War and put to work in an arms factory. At the war’s end there was nothing to go back to; their families had been wiped out and Poland had effectively been taken over by Stalin’s repressive Soviet Union. It took 20 years for them to find their way to a safe haven in New Zealand.

Every New Zealand family has its own immigration story to tell, but in every case someone made the risky decision to leave behind the known and familiar and take a chance on the other side of the world. It’s equally true of the many immigrants now arriving from Asia.
But what occurred to me, reading Gill’s book, is that in recent decades the pattern has also reversed itself.

New Zealand has experienced its own exodus. Just as our forebears left Europe for a better life and new opportunities, so, ironically, large numbers of our own children have left New Zealand for much the same reason.
Members of my generation have had to resign themselves to the likelihood that their offspring will end up making their future in another country. Even more ironically, many have gone back to the country their ancestors abandoned: Britain.

There are echoes here of the 19th century experience in countries like Ireland. We too have lost many of our youngest and most talented. The crucial difference is that, thanks to cheap international air fares, we are spared the unimaginably painful experience of saying goodbye knowing we’ll probably never see them again.
My own situation is not unusual. Of our four children, three live overseas: two in Australia and one in California. Only two of our six grandchildren are growing up as New Zealanders. Many of my nieces and nephews, too, find life elsewhere more rewarding.

Will they eventually come back? We can only hope so.
When the subject comes up in conversation with my kids, certain themes emerge. Whatever attachment they feel to the country of their birth, life is economically more rewarding for them elsewhere and the opportunities are greater.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that New Zealand is a low-wage country. My children say they could possibly live with that, but what they can’t accept is the severe disjunction between wages and the cost of living here.
Alas, getting living expenses into line with wages, or vice-versa, is a challenge that seems to be beyond us.  

Saturday, November 15, 2014

People who stare at quarries

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 14.)
The world is in the grip of an epidemic of infantilism. How else can anyone account for tour parties travelling around the world to gasp in awe at the Weta Cave or the newly unveiled model of Smaug the dragon at Wellington Airport?
We’re told that Hobbit pilgrims from overseas burst into tears on arriving at Hobbiton. Perhaps someone should have gently explained that it wasn’t really where Bilbo Baggins lived. It was a farm in the Waikato.

It reminded me of the time I was driving over Haywards Hill and noticed a group of people standing beside a tourist bus gazing misty-eyed at the hillside quarry where the Helm’s Deep battle sequence was filmed for Sir Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I felt like shouting, “It’s just a bloody quarry, for God’s sake”, but I probably would have risked arrest. Given the national reverence for Jackson and the contribution his fantasy epics have made to the country’s GDP, there could well be laws prohibiting such heresy. 

Thirty years ago I read The Hobbit for my children. They were enthralled, but the story struck me as rather slight – certainly compared with The Lord of the Rings.
How Jackson could stretch it into three films, with a cumulative length of nearly eight hours, almost defies belief. I can only assume each film in the trilogy is padded out by the same interminable battle scenes that, to me, made the Lord of the Rings films indistinguishable from each other.

Interchangeable sequences seem to be a common feature of fantasy films. I’ve tried to watch several of the Harry Potter movies on television, but after the first 30 minutes or so I can never tell which one it is. They all ultimately morph into one super-long, generic Harry Potter film in which the plots and mumbo-jumbo dialogue (another feature in common with the Lord of the Rings movies) hardly seem to vary.
Now here’s the question. Why, at a point in history when people are arguably better-educated than ever before, and therefore presumably less susceptible to myth and superstition, has Western civilisation produced a generation so seduced by make-believe?

It’s not just The Hobbit and Harry Potter. Look at the international media frenzy over the announcement that a new Star Wars instalment is imminent. You can be sure this news was trending big-time on Twitter, which is now the ultimate measurement of how important anything is.
Look at the excited reaction by film critics when a new Spider-Man or Batman movie hits the screens. These escapist trifles are treated as if they were as profound as something by Shakespeare or Tolstoy.

Look at the phenomenal success of 2009’s Avatar – surely one of the silliest films ever made – and the hype surrounding the promised release of a sequel in 2016.
Look at the tens of thousands of people who attend sci-fi and fantasy conventions such as San Diego’s famous Comi-Con, where they dress up as Darth Vader or Dumbledore and queue patiently for a glimpse of people called actors, who are revered for pretending to be someone else.

What’s going on here? My Oxford dictionary gives a clue. It defines infantilism as childish behaviour or the persistence of infantile characteristics or behaviour in adult life. Think The Big Bang Theory, which gently satirises four highly educated men who refuse to grow up.
That definition seems, to me, a pretty good description of the Hobbit fan syndrome. But it only gets us halfway toward understanding the phenomenon, because putting a word to it doesn’t really explain how or why it happens.

What’s clear is that the so-called millennial generation – which means, roughly, those born after 1980 – includes a large cohort that is affluent, easily bored and eager for new sources of distraction and gratification.
They seem to find it in escapist fantasy. This is harmless enough, except that the line between fantasy and reality has a tendency to become blurred – witness the Hobbit fans who shed tears of ecstatic joy at being shown a farm near Matamata.

Here’s one possible explanation. There is ample research to support the theory that humanity is hard-wired to believe in something bigger than ourselves. Conventional religious belief has largely fallen out of favour; we’re too sophisticated and sceptical for that. But perhaps the need to believe remains.
Maybe hobbits, superheroes, wizards and Jedi knights have filled the vacuum. Unlike religion, they demand nothing in return – surely an irresistible advantage.


Friday, November 7, 2014

When a whanau places itself above the law

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 5.)
If you had to name the vital principles underpinning our civilised, democratic society, what would they be?
One would surely be the rule of law, which provides a framework by which injustices are dealt with, disputes resolved and the weak protected against the powerful.

Respect for the rule of law is one of the factors that distinguishes liberal democracies from countries where despots rule, and where justice, if it exists at all, is administered very selectively.
It follows that without the rule of law, society would unravel. Yet a determined challenge to the rule of law in New Zealand has been allowed to continue unchecked for seven years.

The country has watched with mounting dismay and incredulity as the Bay of Plenty whanau of the late James Takamore has repeatedly defied court orders to allow the exhumation of his body and its return to Christchurch, from where it was taken in 2007.
First the High Court, then the Court of Appeal and finally the Supreme Court all decreed that the wishes of Takamore’s Paheka partner and children should prevail over those of his whanau.

It’s clear that Takamore himself wished to be buried in Christchurch. But when an attempt was made in August to disinter his body from the whanau urupa near Opotiki, police and funeral directors were blocked by an intimidating group of Maori protesters. Rather than risk violence, they retreated.
At that moment, the goddess of justice must have let out a quiet sigh of despair.

In this case, the whanau have placed themselves above the law. They have used a cultural pretext, the sanctity of Maori custom, as an excuse to defy the courts and bully a grieving family. And a timid Crown appears to have no answer to their arrogance.
A High Court judge who has tried to mediate, apparently in the vain hope that sweet reason would succeed where court orders failed, has given up and passed the parcel – an embarrassing, much-handled parcel that no one wants – to the Solicitor-General.

No one will be holding their breath in the expectation of a sudden breakthrough. After all, why would the whanau capitulate now, when they have succeeded in repeatedly making a mockery of the legal system and proving its impotence?
Effectively, we seem to be back to square one. The scandalous procrastination continues.

The whanau claims good reason for doing what it did. After Takamore’s death members of the whanau travelled to Christchurch where they reportedly found his body lying unattended in the funeral home. The Tuhoe people regard this as an egregious breach of tikanga (custom) and a slight to the dead person.
I’ve also seen it argued (by a Pakeha) that Takamore deserves to lie among his own people, where his remains will be honoured and cared for.

I understand that argument up to a point, but it assumes he would have been neglected and forgotten had he remained in Christchurch. That’s an insult to his widow and children.
In any case, all that is irrelevant. We have a judicial system that has evolved over hundreds of years to determine a just and fair outcome in complex situations such as this. It’s not perfect, but it gets things right most of the time.

Maori as well as Pakeha are protected under this system. Maori accepted British law when they signed the Treaty (in fact asked for it, because of the problems caused by unruly colonists) and have become adept at using it to their advantage.
But the law is not a game of pick-and-choose. The system depends on people accepting the decisions of the courts whichever way they fall. Maori cannot embrace the judicial system when it works in their favour and disregard it if they think their tikanga takes precedence.  

It hardly needs saying that the rule of law is imperilled when people see a renegade group brazenly defying the highest court in the land and getting away with it. What’s to stop other disaffected litigants deciding to have a go?
There’s surely a simple, if unpleasant, solution. It’s ultimately the job of the police to enforce the law. Instead of timidly tip-toeing around the issue in the interests of cultural sensitivity, the police should guarantee sufficient force to protect those wanting to exhume the body. Anyone who interferes should be arrested for breach of the peace and contempt of court.

I’m sure that if a motorcycle gang defied the law from behind the walls of its fortified headquarters, the police would call in a bulldozer. It’s happened before. But it seems a different set of rules apply on the Kutarere Marae.
For every day that Takamore’s whanau are allowed to go on defying the courts, the rule of law is weakened. And James Takamore’s immediate family is left to ponder its apparent powerlessness.

I wonder when someone in authority – a judge, a politician, the police commissioner, anyone – will eventually muster the moral courage to call the Takamore whanau’s bluff. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Not everyone wants the news in "real time"

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 31.)
I ALWAYS make a point of reading Mike O’Donnell’s contributions in the Saturday business pages of the Dominion Post. He’s an entertaining columnist who shatters the peculiar conceit that the only people capable of writing well are those who do it for a living.
He’s smart, witty, perceptive and well-informed. You can see why he’s highly regarded in the business and digital technology worlds where he made his name.

Even more appealing is that he seems an unpretentious bloke with an enthusiasm for cars, motorbikes and shooting, which makes his columns all the more readable.  
Until earlier this year, O’Donnell was the chief operating officer for TradeMe. He now heads a new $5.3 million project set up to market New Zealand public sector intellectual property to other governments.

I translate that as meaning, in essence, that his job is to persuade other countries to pay for the right to copy clever ways of doing things that have been pioneered by our public sector – a position for which he seems admirably suited.
Given my respect for him, you can probably understand my reluctance to challenge him, least of all on an issue where he’s regarded as an authority. But I balked at his column last Saturday in which he speculated about the impact of social media on journalism.

O’Donnell suggests that by the time of the next general election, social media may have rendered the evening television news bulletin extinct. His theory seems to be that consumers of news (a ghastly phrase) will no longer be prepared to wait until 6pm for their fix, but will update themselves constantly throughout the day by accessing news on their smartphones and tablets.
People have the capability to do that now. But do the vast number who still get their news from newspapers, TV and radio really have such a voracious appetite for information that in future they will demand it in (to use another ghastly phrase) “real time”?

I somehow doubt it, and I wonder whether people like O’Donnell have been misled by their own enthusiasm for the digital revolution and their missionary desire to promote its assumed benefits.
O’Donnell is certainly correct when he says that digital media – Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere and online news services such as Stuff – have changed the way journalists operate.

Reporters no longer write only to fill the morning paper or the 6 pm bulletin; they’re constantly updating stories or breaking news online. Competition to be first is more intense than ever. But in a sense, it’s artificial competition.
There may be prestige and status to be gained (and bosses to be impressed) by being the first journalist to break a story on Twitter, but does it really matter to anyone besides other journalists, politicians and a minority of tragic news junkies?

Again, I doubt it. Once something has happened, it’s happened – and I suspect that to most people, it doesn’t really matter whether they learn of it instantaneously or wait for tonight’s TV bulletin or tomorrow morning’s Dom Post. 
Not everyone is so obsessed with politics or news in general that they feel compelled to constantly check Twitter, Stuff or Cameron Slater’s latest blog post.

People who are so obsessed – and O’Donnell may or may not be one of them – could easily fall into the trap of assuming that everyone else is, too. But most people I know, and they represent a reasonably wide demographic cross-section, seem to have a healthy grip on life’s priorities and manage perfectly well without getting hung up on Twitter or any other online news outlet.
If they are on Twitter at all (and I know few people who are, or at least who are prepared to admit it), then it takes its place along with all the other things going on their lives. It doesn’t occupy their every waking thought.

And thank God for that, because what sort of world would it be if police officers, bus drivers, construction workers, shop assistants, schoolteachers, forestry workers, nurses, farmers and plumbers constantly interrupted whatever they were doing to look at their digital devices for fear they might have missed something?
Call me a Luddite, but I think it still suits a lot of people to get their news from the 6 pm bulletin, the morning paper or Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report. Trouble is, the noise from those predicting the end of the traditional media often drowns out everyone else.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why food and wine faddism has become almost intolerable

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 22.)

I have an admission to make. I am a recovering wine and food writer.
For many years I wrote wine columns; even a book. I also reviewed restaurants for various publications and was a judge in national restaurant awards.

Those days are now behind me. I enjoy my wine and my food as much as ever, but haven’t lost a millisecond of sleep fretting that I’m no longer part of that scene.
This has nothing to do with ill-will or personal animosity. I don’t think I’ve ever met a winemaker I didn’t like, and I greatly admire what the wine industry has achieved over the past 30-odd years. 

Similarly, I respect the chefs I know. They work hard and are fiercely dedicated to what they do. We should all be enormously grateful that they have transformed New Zealand from the dull, stodgy, meat-and-three-veges culture that I knew when I was growing up.
So what’s the problem? Why am I strangely relieved that consignments of wine no longer turn up on my doorstep from companies hoping for a favourable review, and that I no longer get paid to dine at some of the country’s best restaurants?

Here’s why: in the end, I was repelled by all the hype.
At some indeterminable point during the past decade, the business of wine and food moved beyond the simple appreciation of eating and drinking. It morphed into something approaching a cult.

Glossy food and wine magazines proliferated beyond reason. In some metropolitan newspapers, space previously devoted to issues of public importance was taken over by café reviews and articles about the food fad du jour.
Chefs, winemakers and even baristas became celebrities, lionised like pop stars. Entire display stands in bookshops were devoted to expensive recipe books, their creators posing on the covers like kitchen gods.

The language of food and wine became progressively more preposterous. Wine critics not only discovered that they could get away with laughably pretentious writing, but that it resulted in them being even more revered.
Restaurant menus began to look as if composed by graduates of creative writing schools. The concept of simple things done well seemed to be abandoned as restaurants competed to create ever more exotic combinations. Some worked, many didn’t.

Perhaps worst of all, it got to the point where you couldn’t turn on the television without being confronted by food shows.
At the innocuous end of the spectrum these were honest, simple programmes that often told you something about the culture of a place as well as its cuisine. I quite enjoyed the River Cottage series, for example, and the food-inspired travelogues of Rick Stein.

But then television also gave us excrescences like Gordon Ramsay (I momentarily forgot his name while writing this, so typed “foul-mouthed chef” into Google and there it was) and a serious of contrived, so-called “reality” food shows – a misleading term if ever there was one – in which the primary object seemed to be the humiliation of the contestants.
The latest example of food and drink faddism is the fascination with craft beer. I rejoice in the range of beer now available to consumers, thanks to a new generation of creative independent brewers. But the earnest, bearded cultists who gather at craft beer festivals strike me as only slightly less tragic than men who spend their weekends playing with model planes and boats.

Someone coined the clever term “food porn” to describe the obsession with food and wine and the preponderance of TV shows, magazines and books devoted to the subject. Just as the porn industry does its best to strip sex of its eroticism and mystique (has there ever been a sexy porn movie?), so the simple pleasure of eating and drinking has been contaminated by crass hucksterism. 
How did this come about? Some of the blame must fall on those old culprits, the vulgarians who work in marketing and public relations. Relentlessly talking up anything with a dollar in it is what they do.

I began to lose interest in writing about wine when I sensed that wine companies were increasingly being taken over by aggressive young marketing types who might as well have been promoting Coke, for all they cared or knew about wine, and that the labels they kept pushing forward were not ones that ordinary people could afford to drink.
But marketing and PR spruikers can succeed only if there is a responsive market, and a new type of consumer – affluent, acutely attuned to the trend of the moment and terrified of missing out on whatever’s new – provides it. And I’m not just talking about the impressionable young, because many of the most hopeless food faddists are baby-boomers like me.

We can only hope this is merely an awkward growing phase that an inchoate consumerist society must go through en route to social maturity. And that in due course we will rediscover the simple pleasure of mince on toast.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Deetch" or "dutch"? Both are capable of being made to sound absurd

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 17.)
YEARS AGO, while on a government-sponsored visit to Germany,  I noticed my official guide smirking as he eavesdropped on the conversation of some of our fellow passengers on a train trip between Karlsruhe and Berlin.

He later explained that the group’s accent identified them as coming from a provincial region in the north of Germany. A resident of sophisticated Bonn himself, he clearly regarded them as yokels. His contempt couldn’t have been more obvious.

It lodged in my memory not just as extraordinarily unprofessional, coming from someone employed to promote a newly-unified Germany, but as a striking lesson in how human beings put others down purely because of the way they speak.

Mocking other people’s accents is an age-old way of asserting cultural and social superiority. 

It’s also one of the easiest ways in which to poke fun at other nationalities - a fact cleverly exploited by the scriptwriters of TV comedies such as Hogan’s Heroes and ’Allo ’Allo!, in which the Germans and French were mercilessly caricatured on the basis of their accents.

Fifty years ago, Peter Sellers sold lots of records with his wickedly clever impersonation of Indians. Would he get away with it today? Probably not. Cultural sensitivity would rule it out. Yet some accents are still considered fair game - including our own.

On the American talk show Last Week Tonight, British comedian John Oliver had great fun recently with a New Zealand television news clip about the fuss over the National Party’s alleged plagiarising of a track by rapper Eminem in its election advertising.

Two aspects appealed to Oliver. The first was National campaign manager Steven Joyce’s reaction when journalists asked him whether National had obtained copyright clearance to use the Eminem song.

Joyce’s reply - "We think it’s, um, pretty legal”  - amused Oliver, who suggested the politician would make an entertaining defence lawyer.

But what also attracted Oliver’s attention, perhaps inevitably, was the accent of the New Zealand television reporter featured in the clip. Her pronunciation of “Eminem”, in particular, so amused him that he attempted his own imitation – not once but twice, to the great mirth of his audience.

Fair enough; I cringe too at the pronunciation of television journalists. Some give the impression they’re on a mission to destroy every trace of euphony in the English language.

This particular reporter’s pinched pronunciation of the vowels in “Eminem” was enough to make even me wince, and I’m a New Zealander.

But then, with accents, who’s to say that one is worse than another? All accents are capable of being made to sound ridiculous.

Several years ago, simple-minded Australians (no jokes about tautology, please) hooted with delight at the famous “Beached Az, Bro” video – an Australian-made cartoon in which a beached whale with a Kiwi accent declined an offer of a potato chup because he could only eat plinkton.

It wasn’t terribly clever, but it played to the widespread perception among Australians that New Zealand is a slightly more backward version of Tasmania.

Even an intelligent magazine like the Spectator Australia can’t resist having a dig. In an editorial devoted to National’s election victory a couple of weeks ago, it referred to events across the “dutch”.

But really, can anyone say the New Zealand accent is intrinsically more absurd than one that pronounces chips as cheeps, kiwi as koy-woy, pool as pewel and today as to die? Or, for that matter, ditch as deetch?

I suppose we just have to accept that New Zealand English can sound odd to other ears. What apparently doesn’t occur to most Australians, with their nationalistic braggadocio, is that their accent can sound pretty tortured too.

And what about the Brits? Once, travelling on a train in France, I spent several minutes trying to figure out the nationality of the young men who were sharing my compartment. It eventually dawned on me that they were from England and that the language they were speaking was nominally the same as mine.

No one from a country with Britain’s quaint assortment of impenetrable regional accents is in a position to poke fun at the way other people speak. At least a New Zealander from Kaitaia can understand one from Invercargill, which is not something that can be said for the British.

So perhaps people like Oliver should lay off the jokes about other cultures’ accents. It’s a cheap way of point-scoring, and it often says a lot more about the mocker than the mocked.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

George, George, what were you thinking?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 8.)
I’ve always rather liked George Clooney. I particularly enjoyed the films he made with the directors Joel and Ethan Coen, namely O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty.
Both movies bore the Coen brothers’ trademark storyline of greedy, evil or stupid people (sometimes all three) getting caught up in grotesquely complex events that spiral out of control, usually with disastrous and outrageously funny consequences.

Clooney seemed a natural fit with the Coen brothers’ darkly whimsical view of the world. What especially impressed me was that even with his matinee-idol looks, he was happy to play roles that required a degree of self-mockery. He didn’t seem to take himself too seriously – a quality he shares with a similarly suave heart-throb from an earlier era, Cary Grant.
I was less impressed with the over-rated Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney’s directorial debut, in which he starred as a colleague of the legendary American broadcaster Edward R Murrow, and I probably should resent him for his involvement as producer of Argo, which wilfully misrepresented New Zealand’s role in a plot to spirit six American diplomats out of hostile Iran. 

But his best films have been brilliant and even his poorer ones are better than most, so he remained one of the few Hollywood stars I admired.
His efforts on behalf of war victims in Sudan seemed to mark him as a decent man, too – a genuine humanitarian, and blessedly free of the irritating sanctimony and self-promotion that has made U2’s Bono a figure of ridicule.

On top of all this, Clooney seemed endearingly immune to the hype, humbug and glitz customarily associated with big box-office names. Still more reason to like him.
That is, until last week. Then he blew it.

Clooney could have got married quietly and discreetly. Instead, his wedding was the centre of a media event that was extravagant even by Hollywood standards.
We can only conclude this was deliberate. Why else choose Venice as the venue?

It’s hard to imagine any city in the world where there would be less prospect of privacy. In Venice, people get around in open boats. This meant that virtually every move by Clooney and his bride, the Lebanese-born civil rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, would be witnessed and recorded by paparazzi and TV cameras.
Again, we can only assume it was orchestrated with this intent. The media seemed to have been advised in advance of the wedding party’s movements so that they could be on hand to capture every moment.

Certainly Clooney seemed to revel in the attention, beaming and waving like a monarch acknowledging the adoration of his subjects. Not for him the raised hand to fend off prying lenses or the phalanx of bodyguards to keep the press at bay, as we’ve come to expect of celebrity weddings.
On the contrary, there seemed an inordinate amount of very public cruising back and forth on the canals in the company of his illustrious guests, the purpose of which was presumably to ensure maximum exposure.

George, George, what were you thinking?
Journalists, clearly so mesmerised by the glamour of the occasion that they momentarily took leave of their professional scepticism, wittered on about the prospect of Clooney’s female fans worldwide being plunged into despair at the sight of the man they called the world’s most desirable bachelor giving his heart to someone else.

In fact a more probable consequence was that many people who had previously respected Clooney as an intelligent and sensible man, with an admirable disregard for the usual excesses of Hollywood stardom, would be wondering how he could have let them down so badly. Or perhaps, like me, they were quietly rebuking themselves for having so naively misread him.

Several questions arise from the extravaganza in Venice. The first and most obvious is why so many stars feel an apparent compulsion to live their lives so publicly. Is it because they depend on the constant affirmation of the crowd? Does stardom get inside their heads to the point where public adulation eventually becomes the only way they can measure their worth?
Another is why celebrities appear to crave the company of other celebrities. Is this another form of validation for insecure egos? (Matt Damon, Bono, Cindy Crawford and Bill Murray are at my wedding – ergo, I must be up there in the celebrity stratosphere.) Did they have a life, friends, before they became stars?

But perhaps the most perplexing question of all relates to our own fascination with the cult of stardom, without which the Clooney-Alamuddin wedding would have been ignored.
After all, what are actors? They are people who are famous for pretending to be someone else.

We wrongly attribute to them the characteristics of the fictional characters they play. The extent to which we worship them hinges on how convincingly they pull off this feat. Our interest in them is as illogical as our fascination with royalty, whose mass appeal is derived from accidents of birth.
So we’re the suckers, and Clooney is simply taking advantage of our gullibility. But I can’t help liking him less as a result.